Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center
Type non-profit organization
Founded 1989, Jerusalem
Headquarters Jerusalem
Key people Naim Ateek, Director
Industry Liberation theology, Social action

Sabeel (Arabic 'the way' and also 'a channel' or 'spring') Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center is a Christian liberation theology organization based in Jerusalem. It was founded by Palestinian Anglican priest, Rev. Naim Ateek, the former Canon of St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem.

An official partner of the Presbyterian Church USA,[1] Sabeel has chapters in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Ireland, France, Germany, and Australia.

According to its official website, Sabeel "strives to develop a spirituality based on love, justice, peace, nonviolence, liberation and reconciliation for the different national and faith communities." In particular, the group aims to "promote a more accurate international awareness regarding the identity, presence and witness of Palestinian Christians as well as their contemporary concerns."[2]

Sabeel, which advocates "morally responsible investment,"[3] has been described by its critics as promoting an anti-Israel agenda, including divestment from Israel. It has also been accused of using antisemitic rhetoric.[4] The Rev. Canon Dr. Richard K. Toll, the Chair of Friends of Sabeel—North America [1], denies those allegations, writing that "the state of Israel is not above criticism and needs to be challenged when its policies are wrong. And its policy of occupation is wrong." Toll also says that Sabeel "consistently condemns anti-Semitism in all its ugly forms."[5]

Political Vision

In 2004, Sabeel issued a document entitled Principles for Just Peace in Palestine-Israel outlining their support for a two-state solution as an immediate goal, while envisioning that it may eventually lead to a one-state solution. [6]

Our vision involves two sovereign states, Palestine and Israel, who will enter into a confederation or even a federation, possibly with other neighboring countries and where Jerusalem becomes the federal capital. Indeed, the ideal and best solution has always been to envisage ultimately a bi-national state in Palestine-Israel where people are free and equal, living under a constitutional democracy that protects and guarantees all their rights, responsibilities, and duties without racism or discrimination. One state for two nations and three religions.[6]

Principles for a Just Peace

The document outlines several demands made of Israel, including the need for reparations to be made to Palestinians. It further states that "No solution is acceptable if it does not guarantee the Palestinians’ and Israelis’ right to self-determination, independence, and sovereignty" and calls for "a peace treaty… between the two states of Palestine and Israel guaranteeing the full sovereignty and territorial integrity of each including recognized borders, water rights, and other resources." [6]

Disagreement with Zionist interpretations of the Old Testament

Sabeel's founder, Anglican priest Naim Ateek, outlined his disagreement with what he sees as Zionist interpretations of the Old Testament in his 1989 book, Justice, and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation:

"Before the creation of the State [of Israel], the Old Testament was considered to be an essential part of Christian Scripture, pointing and witnessing to Jesus. Since the creation of the State, some Jewish and Christian interpreters have read the Old Testament largely as a Zionist text to such an extent that it has become almost repugnant to Palestinian Christians […] The fundamental question of many Christians, whether uttered or not, is: How can the Old Testament be the Word of God in light of the Palestinian Christians' experience with its use to support Zionism? [7].

Ateek's internal struggle with the Israel issue

In the book, Ateek also explained how he struggled to reconcile various dichotomies posed by his faith, beliefs and identity:

"As a boy, remembering my family's harsh exile from Beisan, and later, as a person of faith and a clergyman, my own struggles with hate, anger, and humiliation were not easy. But these feelings had to be challenged continuously by the demands of love and forgiveness. At the same time, I knew without a doubt that injustice is sinful and evil; that it is an outrage against God; and that it is my duty to cry out against it. It has taken me years to accept the establishment of the State of Israel and its need- although not its right - to exist. I now feel that I want it to stay, because I believe that the elimination of Israel would mean greater injustice to millions of innocent people who know no home except Israel. This does not suggest that the Old Testament is not the Word of God, but how can it be understood as that if a Zionist theology of the Old Testament is accepted by Christian groups?"[8]

Friends of Sabeel

Friends of Sabeel-North America (FOSNA) works in the U.S. and Canada to support the vision of Sabeel. It cultivates the support of American churches through co-sponsored regional educational conferences, alternative pilgrimage, witness trips, and international gatherings in the Holy Land. [2]

Mixed Support from Mainline denominations

Sabeel has sent representatives to several denominational gatherings in the United States and has advocated for divestment resolutions, which it sees as a non-violent approach to resisting the occupation.[3] It has met with some success. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has passed divestment resolutions based on information provided by Sabeel. [9] All of the major mainline denominations, including the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church, have discussed divestment and the possibility of using the money in their pension funds and endowments to exert pressure for peace in the Middle East. [9]

In February 2006, the World Council of Churches (WCC) commended the actions of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and urged other member churches worldwide to consider economic measures to end Israel’s occupation.[10] Salpy Eskidjian Weiderud, former special consultant to the Geneva-based WCC General Secretary on Palestine and Israel, has noted that support for divestment by the WCC governing body came in the backdrop of a history of "bold statements since 1948 on its Israel/Palestine policy", and was a way of ensuring "that it is not in any way contributing financially to what it says is illegal or immoral."[10]

The Episcopal Church, The United Church of Christ and others have passed Sabeel-influenced resolutions urging Israel to dismantle the security barrier and end its occupation of the Palestinian territories.[10]

Other groups within these denominations have rejected and opposed these resolutions. Rev. David Runnion-Bareford of the Biblical Witness Fellowship issued an apology to Jews after the United Church of Christ issues their 2005 resolution. [3] He also accused "an ad hoc group made up of Sabeel representatives and UCC officials" of becoming unduly [4] involved in the resolution process. The PCUSA resolution also created much controversy, leading to a 2006 Synod renouncing the resolution that was made under the consultation of Sabeel.


In addition to the mainline opposition groups that have formed as a result of Sabeel's activity, there have been other groups that have opposed either Sabeel's goals or their manner of speaking their message. In some cases, groups have accused Sabeel of extremism and antisemitism. Sabeel's most vocal critics are listed below with their most significant criticisms also listed.

NGO Monitor

The Israeli organization NGO Monitor has argued that Sabeel "is active in promoting an extreme anti-Israel agenda in Protestant churches in both North America and Europe." [11]

Coe College

The chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Coe College (Iowa), which had co-sponsored a campus conference with a group of American supporters of Sabeel, acknowledged in a letter to a local rabbi that anti-Semitic remarks had been made at the conference. The chair wrote "We regret any harm that may have been caused by such anti-Semitic statements", but later told journalists covering the story that his letter was not an apology, and that it was deliberately vague because he was unsure exactly which comments could be considered anti-Semitic. [12]

Stephen Roth Institute

The Stephen Roth Institute For The Study Of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism has claimed that Sabeel "commonly engages in blatant propaganda seeking to isolate and demonize Israel, while delegitimizing the right of the Jewish state to exist." It is further claimed that Naim Ateek views "real antisemitism" as "a matter of ‘Jews hating other Jews’, that is, ‘mainstream’ Jews hating Jews who are critical of Israel." [13]

Dexter Van Zile, CAMERA, and Judeo-Christian Alliance

Dexter Van Zile, a member of the United Church of Christ and critic of Israel divestment campaigns, [5] [6], has publicly stated in a CAMERA publication that he condemns Ateek's implication that "...Israel is a baby- and Christ-killing nation that stands in the way of humanity's salvation. Given the role this imagery has played in promoting violence against Jews, and its use in reference to the Jewish state is inexcusable."[14]</blockquote>

Van Zile bases these accusations on statements excerpted from Ateek's 2001 Easter message, such as, “in this season of Lent, it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around Him …The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily," [15]. Similarly, in a February 2001 sermon, Ateek likened the occupation to the “stone placed on the entrance of Jesus’ tomb. … This boulder has shut in the Palestinians within and built structures of domination to keep them in. We have a name for this boulder. It is called the occupation.” [15] Sabeel's comparisons of Palestinians to the crucified Jesus and Israel to his murderers is also rejected by the ADL as an "ugly and false deicide charge against all the Jewish people - a concept rejected by prominent historians and repudiated by the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations." [16]

The Judeo-Christian Alliance has also promoted Van Zile's paper, entitled "Sabeel's One State Agenda", highlighting the opinion that Sabeel has failed to draw attention to the mistreatment of Christians by Muslim extremists in areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority. [15] Van Zile also accused Ateek of breathing new life into what French historian Jules Isaac called the “teachings of contempt” and having directed their "vile energy" toward the Jewish State. [15]

Anti-Defamation League

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), in a backgrounder article on Sabeel, accused the organization of "generating hostility towards Israel" citing "its use of theologically charged accusations" as belying "its professed passion for reconciliation." [16] The ADL further submitted that, "Sabeel rejects Zionism on theological grounds. It has promoted the idea that Zionism is based on a false reading of the Bible and that it stands for injustice and in opposition to God." [16]


Defending America for Knowledge and Action (DAFKA) has criticised Sabeel for being a vehicle for Replacement Theology. [7].

Criticism of, and support for Old South Church

The Boston Globe's conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby criticized Boston's historic Old South Church, a congregation of the United Church of Christ, for hosting the Most Reverend Doctor Desmond Tutu as part of that church's Engaging Three Faiths spiritual dialog series, and Sabeel's Apartheid Paradigm in Palestine-Israel conference. Jacoby argued that "Sabeel and Ateek's denunciations of Israel have included imagery explicitly linking the modern Jewish state to the terrible charge that for centuries fueled so much anti-Jewish hatred and bloodshed" and that "In Ateek's metaphorical telling, in other words, Israel is guilty of trying to murder Jesus as an infant, of killing Jesus on the cross, and of seeking to prevent his resurrection."[8]

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, and Rabbi Howard A. Berman, founder of Jewish Spirit have expressed support for, and are participants in Old South Church's Engaging Three Faiths series.[9]

During his presentation at Old South Church on October 28, 2007, Waskow raised concerns about Sabeel's use of crucifixion imagery in reference to Israel. Waskow said that in Latin America, Christian liberation theologians often "talk about the crucifixion of Jesus by the Roman Empire ... and from their view point of course the resurrection of the Christ as teaching of what it means to transcend imperial power, in the Latin American context it's clear that the empire you're talking about is America and it makes sense."

Waskow said that Sabeel may think it's doing the same thing when it talks about the crucifixion of Jesus, but "when you are doing it in the context of a Jewish state, when you're doing it in the context of 2000 years of Jewish suffering from the Christian dogma of deicide that the Jews killed God and the violence that has been visited on the Jewish community by people upholding that theology, to hear that strikes a nerve that has 2000 years of pain behind it and that has to be heard."[10]

External links

Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center: An ADL Backgrounder

A Primer on Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center

Liberation Theology in the Middle East


  1. "Israel-Palestine Partner Churches and Organizations". Presbyterian Church (USA). Retrieved 03.05.2007. 
  2. "About Us". Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. Retrieved 05.09.2007. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Sabeel's Call for Morally Responsible Investment: A Nonviolent Response to the Occupation". Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. Retrieved 05.11.2007. 
  4. Richard K. Toll (12 December 2006). "An Open Letter From Friends of Sabeel To Our Supporters and to Internet Media". Miftah, Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy. Retrieved 2007-05-09. 
  5. 6.0 6.1 6.2 "The Jerusalem Sabeel Document: Principles for a Just Peace in Palestine-Israel". Sabeel. Retrieved 03.05.2007. 
  6. Naim Stifan Ateek (1989). Justice, and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll: Orbis Books. pp. 77–78. 
  7. Naim Stifan Ateek (1989). Justice, and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll: Orbis Books. p. 164. 
  8. 9.0 9.1 Michael Paulson (2 July 2005). "Church Delegation Offers Mideast Peace Investment Plan". 
  9. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Sister Elaine Kelley (January/February 2006) (PDF). Christianity and the Middle East: Sabeel Conference Considers Economic Leverage as Tool to Fight Israeli Occupation. Washington Report. pp. 60–61. 
  10. "Sabeel's Ecumenical Facade". NGO Monitor. 10 July 2005. Retrieved 03.05.2007. 
  11. Anti-Semitic remarks made at Presbyterian college event
  12. Stephen Roth Institute For The Study Of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism - Annual Reports - Country Report, Canada 2005
  13. "Chicago Tribune Public Editor Lauds Sabeel". CAMERA. 25 October 2005. Retrieved 03.05.2007. 
  14. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Dexter Van Zile (12 December 2005). "Main Repository Page: Special Reports". The Judeo-Christian Alliance: Fighting for Israel and Human Rights in the Middle East. Retrieved 03.05.2007. 
  15. 16.0 16.1 16.2 "Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center: An ADL Backgrounder". The Anti-Defamation League. 24 January 2007. Retrieved 03.05.2007. 

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